“There are many farm handouts; but let’s call them what they really are: a form of legalized theft. Essentially, a congressman tells his farm constituency, ‘Vote for me. I’ll use my office to take another American’s money and give it to you.'”- Walter Williams
by R. Lee Wrights
BURNET, Texas (Oct. 1) – People who are not farmers, or who don’t know any farmers, probably know very little about the U.S. Department of Agriculture. What most of us do know about USDA, other than the stamp it places on meat packages, is that it takes billions of dollars from taxpayers to pay farmers not to grow things. Basically it’s a large federal bureaucracy that pays productive people not to be productive. Not only is this a tremendous waste of money, it is extraordinarily absurd! It does nothing but stifle initiative and destroy the entrepreneurial spirit that made America great. It is bureaucratic madness to take money from productive people and use it to pay other people to do nothing.
The Cato Institute, a public policy research organization dedicated to the principles of individual liberty, limited government, free markets and peace has come up with a plan to downsize the federal government. It includes saving several billions of dollars by terminating a number of USDA programs. But they fail to take the next logical step. As president, I would ask Congress to abolish the Department of Agriculture altogether, along with most of the other cabinet departments.
The USDA’s 2011 budget of $152 billion equates to $1,200 seized from every U.S. household. And you may be surprised to learn that two-thirds of that taxpayer-money will actually be doled out in food subsides, not farm subsidies. By far the largest part of the USDA’s budget is money given away to “poor” people through food stamps, the school breakfast and lunch programs, and the women, infants, and children (WIC) program. These are just three of the 26 food and nutrition programs run by six different federal agencies.
Farm subsidies, the one Agriculture Department program most people know about, can cost taxpayers anywhere from $10 billion to $30 billion per year, depending on crop prices, the weather and other factors. Farmers who grow just five crops (wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and cotton) will get 90 percent of that money. Contrary to popular perception, most of the 800,000 “farmers” who get this money aren’t Ma and Pa Kettle. More than 60 percent are commercial farms, and substantial sums will go to people who don’t actually grow anything at all.
Farm subsidies are clearly and simply a massive redistribution of wealth, and not the “Robin Hood” variety of taking from the rich to give to the poor. According to the USDA’s own records, the average income of farm households is consistently higher than the average income of other American households. Farmers who benefit from subsidies would not suffer if they were eliminated. In fact, the majority of American farmers don’t receive a subsidy. The 64 percent of farmers who actually produce our meat, poultry, fruits and vegetables don’t receive a handout from the federal government. Nor do many of the other U.S. industries, which even in difficult economic times survive and thrive without government largess.
With one hand USDA gives farmers money not to grow crops, and imposes regulations and policies on food producers that limit food supplies and drive prices skyward. With the other hand it gives money to people who can’t afford to buy food because the price is too high. That is the insane and foolish principle behind food stamps, WIC and the department’s other food programs. These programs may make political sense, but they make absolutely no economic sense.
Another popular misconception about the federal food stamp program is that it is necessary to feed the hungry. In fact in the 1930’s, when the federal government first intervened in this area, there were already state and local government, as well as, private food programs in place. Today, the major problem with American children’s nutrition is not hunger, but obesity.
Federal farm policies in the dairy industry have caused an increase in the price of milk, thus harming low-income families. The WIC program encourages new mothers to feed their newborns formula instead of breast milk, contrary to the universal advice of health care experts who say breast milk is more nutritious than formula. And because the government “experts” promote less-healthy children’s formula, the federal government buys enrollees about half the formula sold in the U.S., which drives up the retail price for everyone else. So once again, poor people suffer because of a government program allegedly designed to help them.
In reality, the Department of Agriculture is one monumental giveaway scheme, a labyrinth of policies and plans designed to take money from productive people and give it to individuals who either cannot or will not produce. The USDA could very well be the poster child for all that is wrong with government intervention in the free market. Just about everything the department does exemplifies the many ways supposedly well-intentioned government programs not only have the opposite effect of their intent, but actually do more harm than good.
R. Lee Wrights, 53, a libertarian writer and political activist, is seeking the presidential nomination because he believes the Libertarian message in 2012 must be a loud, clear and unequivocal call to stop all war. To that end he has pledged that 10 percent of all donations to his campaign will be spent for ballot access so that the stop all war message is heard in all 50 states. Wrights is a lifetime member of the Libertarian Party and co-founder and editor of the free speech online magazine Liberty For All. Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., he now lives and works in Texas.